Book of the week

13th October 2000 at 01:00
CITY LITERACIES: Learning to read across generations and cultures. By Eve Gregory and Ann Williams. Routledge pound;15.99

This compelling book emerged from an eight-year project conducted in the heart of London's inner-city Spitalfields and the eastern fringe of the City. It draws on, among other sources, what must be a huge archive of tape recordings by 50 contributors who range from the very elderly to infants and who speak of their lives, their schooling and their memories of learning to read.

Learning to read is at the heart of the book, which makes clear that the study of literacy must include a sense of the history, social life and schooling of the people who speak from its pages. However close we get to East End life, from the crushing poverty of the inter-war years to the high hopes of the post-war period, we never lose sight of a world in which distant governments shaped the events which took place in the classrooms of Commercial Street and Dukes Place.

The authors describe their book at the outset as presenting "an intergenerational study of living, learning and reading as it has taken place throughout the twentieth century in homes, churches, synagogues, mosques, theatres and, of course, school classrooms".

Like all summaries of richly textured books, this gives only a partial notion of what is on offer. The approach is described as ethnographic and ethnomethodological, though I must say most of the book could have been written without the aid of such academic terms. There is no doubt that what stands at its heart are those many voices which are liberally woven into the authors' text.

How did they get there? We are told that "data for this book were collected through extended semi-structured interviews". We never discover how this worked in practice; how, for example, the 50 contributors were selected, exactly what the interviewers said and what determined the selection of the brief citations. The authors must know that interviews are notoriously hazardous and much more is needed than a succinct phrase to show us what happened. In particular we need to know whether these citations were limited to selections which suited the authors' purposes. Clearly the interviewees' comments cannot simply be accepted as glimpses of the truth.

A great strength of the book is its sharpness of focus, namely on the schools, Canon Barnett in Commercial Street, Sir John Cass Church of England in Dukes Place, and the Jews' Free School in Bell Lane. In the hinterland of these schools are the other "literacies" in the communities which are closely studied and shown to have a special role in school literacy. How far can the detail of this study be shown to be representative in spite of the fact that the area and its waves of immigration make it in many ways unique?

Readers will soon see for temselves that many experiences and social events in these pages are replicated in their own areas - the changing methods of teaching reading, the 11-plus failures, the roles of libraries and clubs, the first generation of university students and much more.

What underlies this book is a set of beliefs which constitutes a kind of militant manifesto. Though it sometimes disappears from view, it is always in the sub-text. It is presented to us as a set of myths, which the authors aim to dispel, concerning the learning and teaching of reading in urban, multicultural areas.

The first myth equates poverty with poor literacy. Against this the book champions the successes of poor children in and out of school.

The second myth equates early reading success with a particular type of parenting, namely the regular reading of stories to infants at home. Against this it is argued that many achieve literacy through a wealth of other practices and a variety of mentors.

The third myth associates a mismatch between language and learning in the home with that demanded in school. The authors believe that children "blend home, community and school language to enhance official school achievement".

Finally, there is the myth of one correct method of teaching reading. In rejecting this the authors argue that it is not the teachers' method that is decisive but rather their whole approach to learning.

Some readers will readily recognise these myths as emerging from the debate about deprivation which has gone on for decades.

The word "myth" is a very big word. It would have been helpful to examine more closely some of the assumptions behind this manifesto and to temper its dogmatic tone. Nevertheless, in the end what impresses is the sheer ambition of this book. For me, the finest and most moving section is Part III in which we hear young children of today engaged in learning and playing. And the transcripts are accompanied by brilliant analysis.

A few more questions. How did the authors decide that literacy is synonymous with reading and only very late in the book extend their attention to writing and then only thinly? How, in covering the extra-school literacy activity of the inter-war years, did they come to bypass completely the widespread left-wing activities in the East End? My own experience was saturated with pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers and books. The Workers' Circle conducted classes for children which taught Yiddish as a literary language.

This book must be widely read and used as a basis for discussion. I hope it will be used as a model (with improvements) for further investigation of language in inner-cities.

Harold Rosen's autobiography, Are You Still Circumcised? (Five Leaves Publications), set mostly in the Jewish East End of London, was published last year

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